top of page

Personal Territory and Conflict, Part I – Hey, That’s My Pen!

I like to think of myself as a pretty easy-going guy. I further like to think that if you (the generic you) wants something from me and it is mine to give, well, I’ll probably give it to you. It makes me feel good about myself to think of myself that way. (Unless we’re talking about cookies. Then, I hate to admit, I get a little scratchy. They’re MY cookies, after all.)

The notion of personal territory and human beings, especially when it comes to potential conflict issues, isn’t something that many of us consider in our day-to-day. It is, however, a very real thing as a source of conflict. Humans, like all the creatures that walk the Earth, have some sense of personal territory that they need to defend, and that affects how we work with other people.

How, you may ask?

The Various Flavors of Personal Territory

I’m betting most of you have, or have had, pets in your lives. If you have you know that pets are usually very comfortable enforcing personal territory for themselves. Don’t, for instance, get between you and your cat’s food when it is eating. You may lose a finger, or at least earn a healthy scratch for your efforts.

With animals it’s pretty straightforward. Humans, however, are a little more nuanced. We have different kinds of territory we can find ourselves defending - physical, emotional and psychological. Each of them matters to us, and each can set us up to move towards conflict.

Physical Territory: This is easy, right? We all have space and stuff (my highly technical terms for the kinds of physical territory we manage). Each of us needs a certain amount of personal space. That varies wildly from person to person based on our culture, our family, our gender and our personal experiences. We also have stuff that we think belongs to us, and therefore is part of our territory.

For example, I had a colleague way back in the 90’s who had almost zero personal space. She was a very warm and happy person, but she drove people CRAZY with her very small needs to have space between her and other people. She could be almost nose-to-nose with you before she stopped walking towards you, and then would happily chat with you inches from your face.

She was an unusual exception to the norm here in America, which usually mandates about 18 inches minimum. (Men, in America, usually want more space than women do.) Personal space violations can make people very uncomfortable very quickly, and at the same time not necessarily aware of why they are uncomfortable.

Here’s a fun party game: move slightly closer to someone than normally makes you comfortable. See what they do. Usually they will retreat, slightly, until they are comfortable again. You can move people all around the room with this little exercise! OK, don’t torment your friends and co-workers. But it’s an elegant demonstration of the reality of personal space.

Distinct from personal space is personal stuff. It has, however, every bit as much potential to make other people scratchy. It is also something that we’re not necessarily aware is making us react the way we do when we get scratchy. This can range from the pencil I took from your desk, to the chair I always sit in at department meetings, to “my” treadmill at the gym. It doesn’t have to be logical or even reasonable, this way that people assign items and space as their own.

There is a distinct psychological issue around personal territory (or any kind of territory) for people. There is a sense of invasion and even violation when we feel territorial lines crossed. It is a visceral, gut-based thing, and we can become very reactive when we feel boundaries are repeatedly stepped over. It isn’t just that you took my pencil without asking. It’s that you invaded my territory. That may sound juvenile or even silly, but it’s very real, and we are often unaware of why we’re reacting the way we’re reacting in those moments.

See any room for the start of conflict in this?

Emotional Territory: Every bit as important as physical territory is the notion of emotional territory. This, however, can be more challenging to detect, let alone respect, as we don’t always have clear and easy ways to know where someone else’s emotional territory starts and ends. And that means it is an easier place to stumble into irritating another person when we cross those invisible boundary lines.

Just like with physical territory our individual “space” can vary widely. Some people seem very comfortable with a lot of discussion about feelings and emotions. Others among us find such transparency very uncomfortable, and quickly bristle at people getting too close without permission. And just like physical territory permission is a big deal when it comes to emotional territory.

One example in modern culture is our widespread notion that adults shouldn’t cry. (It’s goofy and counterproductive, but it is also labeled as strong, adult, etc., so there it is.) We are often both embarrassed that another person seems emotional/on the verge of crying, and at the same time we feel compelled to do something about it, if only to prevent it from happening. It can be easy to want to wade in, fix it, get them to stop crying, etc.

At the same time the person in striking distance of tears is also embarrassed or angry (or both) at being close to crying, as well as tends to get defensive and reactive. Doesn’t this sound like fun? Ugh! All that’s really needed here is a sense of personal territory – what does that person need, rather than what we think they need.

What Do I Do with This Information? 1) One great, general recommendation is to, when confronted with a scratchy or irritated person in your world, step back and give a moment to asking yourself why. This is especially useful when the reactivity/irritation seems to come from nowhere. It might be a territory issue.

2) Much of the time we don’t need to do much thinking about this. If we’ve taken the pencil without asking, if we’ve sat in that person’s preferred chair, well, their reactions are their own. Is it an easy fix? Why not fix it? Apologize for the stolen pencil, and consider changing chairs. What does it really cost, anyway?

After all, it isn’t like WE never have territory reactions physically or emotionally, right?

3) It’s also useful to consider our own territory boundaries. Are we even drawing clear boundaries? What’s a regular irritant in our world we could diminish or even get rid of by either deciding this piece of territory isn’t that important, OR deciding we need to make that boundary clearer? This can be uncomfortable. It can also be extremely helpful, both to us and those around us.

Next up: my discussion of the most nuanced and challenging territory of all – psychological territory.


bottom of page